One of the world’s largest auto manufacturers has landed in the U.S. Supreme Court for its alleged role in human rights abuses during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ in the 1970s.
Germany’s Daimler, which is the parent company of the luxury car brand Mercedes-Benz, filed an appeal to end a lawsuit by a group of 22 Argentineans that includes torture victims and relatives of murdered labor activists. Nine of the victims were labor representatives at Daimler subsidiary Mercedes-Benz’s Gonzalez-Catan plant near Buenos Aires and allege that the company was complicit in the disappearance and purported murder of workers viewed by managers as union agitators.
Like many of those “disappeared” during Argentina’s military junta, none of the bodies of the plant workers have been located. The abductions occurred during a time of conflict between Daimler management and the plant’s 4,500 workers over working conditions and pay.
While Daimler doesn’t dispute that the disappearances occurred – and even admits that there was most likely some collusion between the company’s management in Argentina and authorities – it denies direct involvement in the torture and murders of workers as well as collaborating with military death squads.
The car manufacturer also wants the Supreme Court to rule that California – where the U.S. suit was filed – has no jurisdiction over what happened in Argentina.
“None of the facts, witnesses, or documents in this case can be found in the U.S., much less California,” Daimler told the news site GlobalPost.
The case was brought to court under the Alien’s Tort Act of 1789, which was originally intended to prosecute pirates operating in international waters but has more recently been used against global conglomerates accused of a slew of abuses in the developing world. The most famous case on which the act has been applied is the ongoing case against Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador, which deals with the destruction on land and health problems from contaminated land.
Last week the court held in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell that a New York federal court could not hear the claims of 12 Nigerians who accused the Anglo-Dutch oil company of complicity in an attack on protesters in Nigeria in the 1990s.
Activists and plaintiffs, however, argue that the courts in the Southern Cone nations won’t be able to provide the justice that the U.S. court will and also cite the large number of automobiles that Mercedes-Benz sells in the U.S., which has its national headquarters in Palo Alto, California.
While a San Francisco judge ruled that the relationship between the European automaker and its subsidiary was not sufficient enough evidence, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco disagreed and citing agreements over signage, prices and vehicle servicing standards concluded that there were "pervasive contacts” between the company and its subsidiary.
The case is due up in the Supreme Court’s next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2014.
Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ began in 1976 when the country’s armed forces launched a military junta against suspected left-wing dissidents, which in the next seven years saw the disappearance of 8,961 people, according to the South American nation’s Commission on the Disappearances of Persons. Human Rights activists believe the real number is as high as 30,000.